Ever since modern foundations began to be created a century ago, donors have been interested in improving our schools. But it’s really in the past decade that education donors have begun to affect how public schools are organized and run. Andrea Gabor, Bloomberg Chair of Business Journalism at Baruch College, City University of New York, is not fond of private philanthropists influencing pubic schools. So she wrote an article denouncing education donors that appeared in Harper’s Magazine.
Gabor’s article is primarily an attack on the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, but she decides to stick it to other education donors, including the Bradley Foundation as well as Laura and John Arnold. She doesn’t quite say foundations have no role in school reform, but she is reflexively critical of nearly everything education donors have done in the past quarter century.
She offers a history of education philanthropy that is highly misleading. She correctly notes that Milton Friedman, in a 1955 paper, invented the idea of an education voucher. However, she claims, “vouchers had an ignominious history in the South, where they were used as a way to circumvent court-ordered segregation.”
What Gabor refers to is a Southern scheme called “schools of choice,” which allocated seats in white schools to white students. The program did not use vouchers and was not followed by later generations.
Gabor then moves to 1983, when A Nation at Risk—a report from the National Commission on Excellence in Education—warned the country that schools were in trouble. Then in 1985, the Bradley Foundation began supporting work on school choice, funding John Chubb and Terry Moe’s Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools and supporting school choice in Milwaukee.
Gabor says Bradley’s interest in school choice “followed on the heels” of A Nation At Risk, but A Nation At Risk does not mention vouchers.
Finally, she says that a good example of successful education philanthropy was the Annenberg Challenge of the mid-1990s. Gabor says that Annenberg’s money “encouraged grantees—many of them educators—to pursue reform ideas.”
Not quite. As I noted in Great Philanthropic Mistakes, Walter Annenberg decided to spend $500 million on school reform. Although he attracted some big names (including Barack Obama, who ran the Chicago Annenberg Challenge for a few years) there were no controls over how his grants would be spent. School systems eagerly accepted Annenberg’s freebie and proceeded to squander it on the programs they preferred. The result was that Annenberg’s massive grant did little or nothing to change schools.
The important lesson that education donors learned from Annenberg’s titanic failure was that if they were going to donate to schools, they had to have some say in how their grants would be spent. Gabor doesn’t like this.
Most of her article is about New Orleans, which in 2015 became the first school system to be entirely charter schools, after a decade in which charter schools were in a majority. She notes that when charter school advocate Sarah Usdin ran for the New Orleans school board in 2012, she got hefty contributions from Laurene Powell Jobs, John Arnold, and Reed Hastings, which enabled her to win easily. Her focus is on a few schools she says are independent of major chains but which ultimately failed because they couldn’t raise enough money to cover their budgets.
Gabor says education donors give money to charter management organizations, which practice “portfolio management,” in which the schools with the highest student test scores get more money and the poorer schools have their funding terminated. The result, she argues, is that these charter management organizations “create a charter school structure that is impervious to democratic control.”
But her argument is weakened by her failure to answer basic questions. Suppose I am a student in New Orleans. How many public high schools can I choose from? How many of these schools are part of chains? How many are independent? How does the educational philosophy of each chain differ?
Gabor doesn’t answer any of these questions. She leads her readers to think that the only alternatives New Orleans students have is a school run by a chain like KIPP, where students face mindless bureaucracy, and nothing else. But she does not explain how many choices New Orleans students really have.
She also doesn’t tell us how much of a school’s budget comes from the state and how much comes from private contributions. She notes that the Cypress Academy, a charter high school she admires, had to close because it had a $600,000 budget deficit, which foundations refused to fund. But we don’t know what the budget of Cypress Academy was, how much of it came from a capitation fee the state provides for every student, and whether the Cypress Academy budget was higher or lower than the city average.
Of course, education philanthropy can—and should—be subject to criticism. In particular, we should wonder at (and criticize) the metrics-driven foundations who think that test scores are the only criterion for judging the success or failure of a school. I’d rather have students who were graduated from high schools with mediocre test scores and some knowledge or how to behave and what the heritage and traditions of Western civilization were than I would have students with brilliant test scores who only learn what they need to know to pass the test.
The Broad, Gates, and Walton Family Foundations should be subject to a thorough critique of their education programs. But Andrea Gabor’s use of misleading history and sloppy journalism fails to rise to this critique and stops short of making a compelling case that foundations hurt our schools.
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